Pope Francis invigorated the Roman Catholic Church on his U.S. visit last week by focusing his public message on global issues while treading lightly in the culture wars of America.
But while he spoke out on climate change, immigration and poverty, his private agenda included a meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The meeting illuminated another side to the pope’s trip — behind his public message of inclusion and tolerance was a quieter campaign to address the church’s position on some controversial issues at the heart of the culture wars.
Father Guillermo Garcia, a professor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles, said the meeting undercuts the pope’s central message of inclusion, because he declined invitations to meet with gay activists.
“He’s reached out to so many marginalized groups,” Garcia said. “But he’s not comfortable yet reaching out to one of the most marginalized groups in the church — the lesbian, gay and bisexual community.”
Unlike the last two popes, who used their stature to push back at elements of secular culture they saw as immoral, Francis has avoided strong pronouncements on some of the church’s most controversial positions — including its prohibitions on contraception and women serving as priests and its view of homosexual behavior as a sin. That approach has stoked enthusiasm among liberals that Francis might be softening the church’s stances.
Garcia said the meeting with Davis should serve as a reality check for those who seemed to forget that Francis is first and foremost a Catholic: “Sometimes the fact that he is so different than his predecessors — we forget that we are putting a persona on him that may not exist.”
Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., became something of a martyr for conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage after being jailed for defying a court order to issue licenses. She was released after six days on the condition that she allow other county officials to issue them.
News of Davis’ meeting with the pope was released by her attorneys from the Florida-based Liberty Council. Davis and her husband, Joe, met with Francis for about 15 minutes last Thursday in Washington, D.C., where the pontiff addressed a joint meeting of Congress.
In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, Davis said she and her husband drove to Washington after a church official called and invited them to the Vatican Embassy. “I was crying,” Davis said. “I had tears coming out of my eyes. I’m just a nobody, so it was really humbling to think he would want to meet or know me.”
Francis gave her two rosaries. “He told me before he left, he said, ‘Stay strong,’” she said in the interview. “That was a great encouragement. Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing, it kind of validates everything to have someone of that stature.”
Father James Heft, a professor of religion at USC and president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, said the meeting should be seen in the context of the pope’s strong defense of religious freedom.
On the pope’s return flight to Rome, before the meeting became public, a reporter asked him whether religious liberty is a valid reason for government officials to flout the law — a clear reference to the Davis case.
“I can’t have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection, but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right,” the pope responded. “It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”
The Vatican initially refused to confirm or deny the meeting, which was first reported Tuesday by the publication Inside the Vatican. A spokesman later issued a statement saying the Vatican would not deny that the meeting occurred but would not discuss any details.
Timothy Gabrielli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, said it made sense that the meeting had been left off the pope’s public itinerary, given his efforts to engage Americans on other issues.
“It’s likely he knew that if the visit were publicized, it would color everything he said and did in America, and he wanted to avoid that restrictive lens,” Gabrielli said. “We Americans have this bifurcated vision in which we are trying to tally points scored for both Republicans and Democrats in and throughout the pope’s visit.”
During Francis’ time as a bishop in his native Argentina, according to one biographer, he tried to head off legalization of same-sex marriage by proposing civil unions as a compromise.
His 2013 comment — “Who am I to judge?” — has been widely taken out of context as evidence that he condones homosexual behavior. In fact, the pope was talking about whether gay men should be allowed to serve as priests, presumably with the standard requirement of celibacy.
There is no indication that he supports same-sex marriage, despite a recent study indicating that 38% of American Catholics believe he does.
In the study, released in August by the Public Religion Research Institute, 49% said the pontiff was opposed to same-sex marriage. The remaining 19% either didn’t know his position or declined to answer.
The survey also indicated that 60% of American Catholics favor or strongly favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry.
Among Catholics who support same-sex marriage, 49% said the pope did too.
“This misperception may be driven in part by the fact that Catholics are likely to believe that Pope Francis holds a position on the issue of same-sex marriage that is consistent with their own,” the report said.